Boat and Ferry Travel

Ferries from Honshu connecting to Tomakomai, Hakodate, and Otaru offer a leisurely way to arrive, while in Hokkaido boats connect the islands of Rebun and Rishiri to the northern tip of Japan. In eastern Hokkaido, ferries offer the best bear-viewing off the Shiretoko Peninsula.

The ferries are the cheapest way to travel to Hokkaido on paper, but for roughly the same price you can fly there within two hours from the mainland. Of course, a night on the ferry does save you money on a hotel. If slow travel is your style, there are ferries from Niigata, Akita, Maizuru, and Tsuruga into Otaru, and services on the Pacific side (Nagoya, Oarai, Sendai, Hachinohe, and Aomori) connect to Hakodate or Tomakomai. Other routes include Shin Nihon-kai Ferry's Niigata to Otaru (18 hours starting at ¥6,480); Taiheiyo Ferry's Sendai to Tomakomai (14-hour service starting at ¥8,300); Shosen Mitsui’s Oarai to Tomakomai (18 hours from ¥8,740); Taiheiyo Ferry's mammoth nearly 40-hour Nagoya-Sendai-Tomakomai (¥10,800); Kawasaki Kinkai Kisen's Hachinohe to Tomakomai (8 hours; ¥5,000); and Seikan Ferry's service that crosses between Aomori and Hakodate (4 hours; ¥1,690). Aside from winter, the Sea of Japan tends to be calmer than the Pacific. However, if you're worried about getting seasick, perhaps a plane or a train is a better option.

First-class is usually double the second-class price, but the extra buys you privacy and comfort, as most regular passengers stretch out on communal carpeted areas with no beds. Outside the summer holiday season, the ferries are mostly used by long-distance truck drivers and the occasional budget backpacker, cyclist, or motorcyclist.

The most budget-conscious, if you don't mind a roughly 24-hour journey, can book Shosen Mitsui's Pacific Story package. This is a bus/ferry/bus service which connects Tokyo to Sapporo for only ¥9,990, departing Tokyo mid-afternoon and reaching Sapporo the following afternoon. Reserve tickets at the Tokyo Yaesu Exit or Shinjuku Station JR Highway bus terminals.

Boat and Ferry Contacts

Kawasaki Kinkai Kisen Ferry (川崎近海汽船). 川崎近海汽船 The ferry has services between Hachinohe, Aomori, and Tomakomai, Hokkaido. 03/3502–4838; www.silverferry.jp.

Seikan Ferry (青函フェリー). 青函フェリー 017/782–3671; 0138/42–5561; www.seikan-ferry.co.jp.

Shin Nihon-kai Ferry (新日本海フェリー). 新日本海フェリー Service on the Sea of Japan runs between Kansai, Niigata, and Akita and Hokkaido's ports of Otaru and Tomakomai. The website has a link to a PDF file with updated English information at the top of the page. 06/6345–2921; www.snf.jp.

Shosen Mitsui Ferry (商船三井フェリー さんふらわあ). 商船三井フェリー さんふらわあ The ferry offers service between Oarai (the closest north-bound ferry port to Tokyo) and Tomakomai, Hokkaido. It takes about 18 hours and is quite cheap (with a decent buffet for ¥2,400 for two meals) if you have the time. The Pacific Story bus/ferry/bus package from Tokyo Station's bus terminal takes you all the way to Sapporo. The connection at Mito Station on the way to Oarai, however, involves a slightly confusing transfer to a city busy (#50 from bus stop #3 on the north side of the station), so show your ferry tickets to the bus driver to be sure you are on the right bus. 0144/34–3121; 029/267–4133; 0120/489-850; www.sunflower.co.jp/english/. Weekdays 9--6, Sat. 9--noon.

Taiheiyo Ferry (太平洋フェリー). 太平洋フェリー There's ferry service between Nagoya and Sendai on Honshu and Tomakomai. 03/3564–4161; 011/281–3311; www.taiheiyo-ferry.co.jp/english.

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